TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – April 4, 2017, Tech. Sgt. Victoria Baldwin, 60th Medical Group commander’s support staff flight chief, received a call she will never forget – that her brother was being airlifted to the intensive care unit and her father had been arrested.
At the time, she was living in Alaska; the flight to her family the next day ended with her arriving a little bit too late.
Gabriel James Baldwin, age 5, died April 6, 2017.
“When everything first happened, I went to mental health,” she remembers. “I spent a couple sessions just crying, or sitting in total silence because I couldn’t articulate - ‘how was this my life,’ ‘how is my brother gone,’ ‘how is my father arrested,’ and the unknown about what would happen with my sisters – the guilt associated (with not) arriving sooner and not being able to say good-bye to Gabe.”
She asked for a referral to a grief counselor where she shared her struggles with survivors’ guilt and her inability to move past what she felt to be a stigma placed on her – the wide breadth she felt she was given as “the girl whose dad killed her brother.”
“I spent a year working with the grief counselor, addressing the complicated emotions surrounding losing my brother to domestic violence and my father being put in the prison system,” she said. “He deserves to answer for his crime, but it doesn’t make the loss any easier.”
Baldwin said people didn’t want to say the wrong thing, so as a result, said seldom to her at all. She began to feel isolated, and while she didn’t want to die, she shared there were times she felt she didn’t want to exist anymore. Those feelings were quickly met with reminders that she had more to fight for – not only for her surviving sisters, but also for her son Bruce, who was six at the time.
“I have a very unique family dynamic, seven sisters and a brother,” said Baldwin. “We’re all really spread out – oldest is going on 41, youngest going on eight.”
After working through the loss of her brother and her father’s incarceration, she began working hard to determine her next move. She couldn’t decide if she was going to separate from the military and get a fresh start, but little did she know another unexpected call would be coming soon.
“I got a phone call from the social workers assigned to my sisters’ case,” she said. “They asked if I wanted to be considered to foster-to-adopt all three. I said yes – immediately, no thought, just said yes.”
Baldwin’s younger sisters included a five, nine, and 14-year-old. She moved quickly to meet placement requirements by moving into a larger home, trading her vehicle for one that could safely transport four kids and she obtained a foster care license. Six months later, the girls were on their way from Indiana to live with her and Bruce in Alaska.
Each of the sisters were all at different stages in the grieving process and she had to make another hard decision. The nine-year-old had preexisting medical needs, reluctantly she asked for her to be placed in a different home, one that could give her optimum care. They still talk and she is doing much better now.
In January of 2020, after months of preparation and planning, a judge finally approved her petition to adopt.
“The girls and Bruce were so excited when I came home that day,” she recalls. “I was pretending to plan Bruce’s next birthday party and then I started reading off the petition – they all screamed and my oldest was elated to no longer be a foster kid.”
Since the passing of Gabriel, the Baldwin family has created a small social media movement called “RAKs for Gabriel.” RAK means “Random Act of Kindness,” and the premise is simple – do something kind for someone else, and leave behind a RAK card, which allows the recipient to learn more about Gabe and continues the conversation about child abuse, intervention services and mental health awareness.
Some of their RAKs have included an annual tradition of buying or paying off unpaid birthday cakes at bakeries in February, which is when Gabe was born. Other RAKs have included school supply drives, paying tuition fees for aspiring medical professionals and buying coffee for strangers at coffee shops.
“A lot of times, someone we gift a RAK to follows up with us on social media, asking how they can get involved, so we started mailing out cards all over the world,” she said.
Losing a loved one to domestic violence has shaped Baldwin and her family to be stronger than before, she said.
“I look at the girls now, and one of them just turned 17, and I remember being there when she was born – helping her learn to walk, teach her the ABCs,” she said. “To remember her then and know all she has been through since – how she has survived so much and still has such a beautiful heart. She inspires me and she’s overcome so much and she has such a beautiful heart.
“Moments like that, you learn to celebrate and recognize the amazing things that can come – the beauty that can come from ashes.”
Finding the right help could save the life of someone affected by domestic violence, abuse or displacement. To learn more about what resources are available, visit Military OneSource at https://www.militaryonesource.mil/ or call (800) 342-9647.